Chicago Theater Review: THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT (Promethean Theatre Ensemble)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 19, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


It’s a two-act tonic, this Madwoman of Chaillot. Life, Jean Giraudoux knew, is never safe from our constant “fever of destruction.” When decency gets beaten down, it’s good to know that it can be saved by the sewers of Paris, the final focus of this 1945 rampant satire from the French playwright.

Presciently ecological in its attack on greedy oil prospectors, The Madwoman of Chaillot centers on a nefarious plot hatched at the Café Terrasse of Chez Francis: A venal C.E.O. and his business henchmen intend to tear up Paris to profit from the petroleum that they can smell beneath the city. A park or playground mean nothing if there are fossil fuels beneath them. These “disrupters” mean to start a war for oil that of course will also be fueled by oil. (Does any of this sound sadly contemporary? As in the war in Iraq and the unelected plutocracy of the 1%?)

A 150-minute counter-culture parable for the vigilant post-war purification required to prevent any future Nazis, this whimsical 1945 frolic relishes and revels in its sympathy for the underdog. Catnip for actors, Giraudoux’s lyrical populism makes it fodder for delightfully over-the-top performances. (It also inspired Jerry Herman’s ill-fated and underrated musical adaptation Dear World.)

Rich with precious nonsense (men change their names every hour in order to signal their mutability) and trenchant relevance, the play’s big heart lies in speeches delivered in each act by the Ragpicker. A scavenger who knows the rich at their intimate worst, he reviles a world that’s been pimped out to the prosperous. The birds, it seems, have stopped singing and people can no longer look at each other directly. Hard, hateful faces are popping up all over the arrondissement. This is a job for the Parisian underground!

In the second act’s mock trial of the world’s plutocrats, our Ragpicker defends them to death in a hymn to greed that ensures they all get sent to the sewers. The one force to foil the machinations of this International Substrate of Paris Inc. is Countess Aurelia, the notorious Madwoman of Chaillot. Her heart was broken by the long-gone Adolphe Berteau, the man she lost (but returns to in reveries).

Undeterred by heartbreak, she refuses to give up on goodness. She avoids her armoire for fear of seeing the old lady who lives in the mirror. Instead, regaling in her morning ritual, she feeds the faubourg’s cats and discourages them from attacking the pigeons. Impervious to change, she continues to read the same newspaper from a half century before, always newly astonished at the death of someone she knew. She searches for the bola that was stolen from her years ago — and relishes the lily corsage that she will soon gently bequeath to Paris’s famous sewers. For her a policeman’s duty is not to arrest people but to give them a reason to live, especially the would-be suicides rescued from the Seine.

Aurelia is one of four several delightfully dotty “Madwomen” (the French word “folles” fits much better) — ladies who lunch, keep canaries, wait for meetings with President Woodrow Wilson that will never happen, and hear voices. These demented dowagers seem as crucial to the well-being of Paris as the Good Witches were to Oz. Dream makers, not just seekers, she and the denizens of the Parisian underworld (including a very helpful sewer man) join forces to save the city from the greedy. It’s a bit like Frank Capra meets Hair.

John Arthur Lewis’s sprightly, carnival-crazed staging celebrates these fulsome eccentricities, though not yet at the brisk pace that this pleasantly paradoxical, quicksilver, moonstruck work requires to keep its artificiality from congealing into anything real. The “precieux” magic begins and ends with Elaine Carlson’s magisterial title madwoman. Declaring that it’s never too late, the countess merrily proves that “There isn’t any problem that a sensible woman can’t solve in the course of an afternoon.” (It’s a boast that seems to come straight from the mouth of Dolly Levi.) A one-woman Bastille Day, Aurelia’s resilient confidence finds the perfect outlet in Carlson’s inexhaustible ebullience.

Doubling as the dour, life-loathing, imperious Baron, Jerry Bloom also makes merry mischief from the Ragpicker’s scathing Jeremiads. Brenda Wlazlo as the Countess’s simpering ingenue falls charmingly in love with Xavier Lagunas’s ex-criminal gone good.

The 12-person ensemble teem with tomfoolery, including rival madwoman Laura Sturm with her conveniently invisible dog and Brian Hurst playing ideological opposites, both the Prospector who can find oil in a glass of local water and his nemesis, the King of the Sewers into whose realm his alter ego will disappear forever. Insanity was never so healthy as when you can see how “wickedness evaporates.” Now that she’s saved Paris, Aurelia must visit Washington.

photos by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography

The Madwoman of Chaillot
Promethean Theatre Ensemble
Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 1, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on March 17, 2018
for tickets call 773.935.6875 or visit Promethean or Athenaeum

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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